Last Friday, nearly 130 men and women were murdered in the city of Paris. Gun stormed a rock concert and with some attempting to do so at a nearby soccer game. There were even suicide bombers and shooters in the streets. And for the first time in 14 years since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11th, the western world paused for a moment to recoil in fear, disgust, and sorrow. The response was swift with France using airstrikes to destroy 30 ISIS-the alleged instigator of the attacks-train sites and positions in Syria. And continent-wide manhunt began for the remaining gunmen who had been able to evade Parisian law enforcement. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the attacks, is believed to have been killed during one of several raids conducted in throughout Paris these last few days.
While one hopes that the French response is enough to dissuade future terrorist attacks, doubts and fears of a reprisal still linger. One immediate concern is how the attackers managed to prepare and carry out their plans without being detected. Intelligence agencies are blaming encrypted data communications. Despite warnings of limiting the flow of information to groups such as the CIA and NSA, Americans and Europeans alike have moved to ensuring personal freedoms and privacy over national security. It may be that this decision prevented authorities from stopping the attacks. Others have a more frightening response: they came as refugees.
This is based on the finding of a fake Syrian passport near the body of one of the suicide bombers. Investigators reported that the man-assuming the passport belonged to him-came to Europe via Greece and had made the same journey into Central and Western Europe as hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees. This has stoked latent fears that terrorists may be using the refugees and as a means of entering enemy countries undetected. As a result, over twenty US governors have declared they would deny resettling refugees in their states until a strong vetting system can be implemented to ensure the identity of the new migrants. News and social media, churches, and the White House have dismissed these statements as xenophobic, unloving, and maybe even un-American. Yet there are legitimate fears that by throwing the doors open in the name of humanity and compassion, the government is unwittingly inviting in wolves in sheep’s clothing.
So what is to be done? How should Americans respond to the refugee crisis? Let’s first consider what it means if we do permit refugees, of any number, to resettle in the United States. The action would be lauded as compassionate and humane, as it should be. And since we’d be moving families and individuals from a state of instability and poverty to a location where they now have the opportunity and freedom to excel, we would be improving lives of others. Again, this is another very worthwhile endeavor to be pursued. However, is there a way to identify those who are genuine refugees and those who are terrorists disguised as refugees?
The current reaction to such a reaction is to slander the inquirer as a bigot, paranoid, and a descendant of Americans who refused resettlement for Jews fleeing the Nazis. But this is just emotional garbage with no foundation in reality. Consider for a moment that you’ve been asked to rummage through a leaf pile while avoiding the copperheads nesting there. Not every leaf is the tail of a snake, so you might be safe picking up a handful of leaves. Yet not everything that looks like a leaf is a leaf. The rational response then is to find a way to flush out the snakes before gathering the leaves.
This leads to the controversial vetting process and the main argument for those against resettlement. Many refugee advocates posit that the length and intensity of the process (found here) would dissuade terrorists from attempting to use the refugee crisis as a means of moving operatives to foreign targets. However, the finding of the fake Syrian passport and the recent arrest of eight operatives in Turkey posing as refugees suggests that the current system can be side-stepped by those who know how. In fact the vetting system itself is not designed to find positive proof that the refugees are who they say they are but to show that authorities can’t prove they’re lying. In statistics this is called failure to reject the null-hypothesis, not grounds for accepting it. Of course this implies that we can never know with 100% certainty that people are who they say they are. And we run the risk of abandoning people to financial and social uncertainty which could pose problems in the future.
But, as the governors of 20 some states and a few of the GOP presidential candidates are sure to ask, is that a risk worth taking? It’s easy for an individual or even a group of individuals to declare they want to welcome the unfortunate into their homes and to heck with the risks. Yet they are only responsible for themselves and not their communities like government officials are. One of the primary directives for the federal government listed in the US Constitution is providing for the common defense. The 50 states have similar clauses. But nowhere is there a mandate which demands government officials to sacrifice the security of their constituents for the sake of non-citizens. This doesn’t mean they are free from ever making moral decisions concerning foreign people. Rather it means they must first consider the safety and interests of their people over the interests of others.
Does this mean then that we should bar refugees from entering the country? No.
America cannot let the attacks in Paris to frighten it into a state of isolationism with closed borders. Global commerce and politics won’t permit it without serious ramifications for the American people. Also, we did not let the events of 9/11 as excuse to ban air travel. Instead we increased security. Were those measures perfect? No, but every time a loophole was found new steps were put in place to close them. Yes, it has made air travel very hectic, expensive, and annoying. But is has made it safer. The last time a fatal flight occurred in the US due to terrorism was 9/11. The others were caused by either pilot or computer error or sudden inclement weather. Similar measures for the refugees can be taken.
We can never prevent unforeseen attacks. That’s why they’re such a surprise. What we can do is learn from them and try to prevent them in the future. And if there is a potential threat of attack, we should respond accordingly. Right now we need to recognize that terrorists are willing to use the refugee crisis to their advantage. But we also need to find ways to deny them that advantage without condemning millions of others to living in refugee camps where rapists, pedophiles, and human traffickers flourish.